How to rename a school named after Egerton Ryerson

A Hamilton elementary school is using an “Indigenous process” to select a new name. So what should such a process look like?
By Justin Chandler - Published on Dec 10, 2021
Jeremie Caribou, an Indigenous student at Ryerson University, gives a historical tour on campus. (Courtesy of Jeremie Caribou)

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HAMILTON — In June, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees voted unanimously to rename Ryerson Elementary School following the discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of former Indian residential schools. The news sparked protests and national conversations about the Hamilton school’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, viewed as one of the architects of the system.

“It’s not for us to speak on behalf of Indigenous communities or populations,” says Cam Galindo, the Hamilton school-board trustee who, in June, put forward the motion to rename the school. “Our job is to amplify the voices of individuals that are often missing from the decision-making table.”

Renaming a school called Ryerson puts the Hamilton board in the same boat as the Halton District School Board and Ryerson University’s administration. But, unlike with Halton, which selected a new name for Burlington’s Ryerson Public School in November, and the downtown Toronto university, where the administration surveyed community members to rename the institution, Galindo’s motion specifically calls for the creation of an “Indigenous process” for renaming.

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Trustees will be voting to approve such a process in January, when the board will share more details about its proposal, a spokesperson tells TVO.org. “After multiple consultations with Indigenous staff, knowledge keepers and local Indigenous community, we have an Indigenous process,” the spokesperson says, adding that it will be guided by such principles as “consultation, collaboration, consensus and a focus on names related [to] the significance and history of the land the school is on.” The aim is to have a name for trustees to consider by June. As institutions continue to move forward with making these changes, Indigenous students tell TVO.org what an inclusive renaming process should look like — and what institutions should avoid.

TVO.org Explainer: What is a residential school?

Sam Howden likes the sound of what the Hamilton board is doing, even if it’ll take a while. “How these processes get taken up, and with whom, is really important,” they say. Howden, who is Red River Métis from Treaty 1 territory, in Winnipeg, is a master’s student in social work at Ryerson University and an organizer with Wreckonciliation X University, the group behind the most recent push to rename the institution, which some students and faculty are referring to as X University pending the change.

In August, leadership agreed to accept the recommendations of its taskforce, which concluded that the university “must reflect our diverse community with a new name.” A month later, it announced a renaming advisory committee made up of 17 students, faculty, staff, board and senate members, and alumni to help create a shortlist of potential names. The shortlist will be confirmed by the committee chair, university provost, and vice-president academic. Then it will be submitted to the university’s president and board of governors for a decision by the end of the 2021/2022 school year.

A spokesperson tells TVO.org that the renaming committee “is composed of individuals with diverse roles, identities, backgrounds, areas of expertise” and that it’s “making excellent progress” toward identifying “names that will not cause harm, that will represent the university community far into the future, and create new possibilities for defining our institution.”

But Miranda Black, an Indigenous student with Bay of Quinte Mohawk ancestry who was originally on the committee, had serious issues about its make-up and resigned. (The university says that, when Black was appointed, the committee included three Indigenous people: a faculty member, a staff member, and a student. A new Indigenous student has since been appointed.) The confidentiality agreement that members were asked to sign — limiting what they could say about meetings publicly — was another of Black’s concerns. “I couldn’t be accountable using the confidentiality agreement,” she tells TVO.org. She recalls speaking to a grandmother from Six Nations about her experience with residential schools: “I can’t say that I’m not accountable to this woman when deciding on a name that’s supposed to be better for her and her community.”

The Agenda segment, June 3, 2021: Facing Canada's residential-school legacy

The university spokesperson, however, says such agreements are common for committees and allow “all committee members to actively participate in meetings, contribute to the discussions and to allow perspectives to evolve throughout the process.” Most committee materials, she adds, will eventually be publicly available.

Remembering who the renaming process is for is key, both Black and Howden say. “This is not a PR stunt,” Black says. “This is not for gratification of those involved in the renaming committee; this is not for gratification of the school itself.” Elders from local Indigenous communities should be central to any Indigenous renaming process, Black says. “That leadership should be within those renaming committees.” Howden says change should be led by the communities most affected by Ryerson’s legacy: “In my mind, that’s Black and Indigenous people.” They add that the university’s taskforce found that some of Egerton Ryerson’s work supported segregated schooling and resulted in poorer education for Black Ontarians.

When asked whether the renaming committee would consult such communities, Ryerson University’s spokesperson says, “We have reached out to both the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy as part of our external community outreach.”

Halton’s board consulted an Indigenous linguistics expert, CBC News reports. But, asked about other potential Indigenous consultation, a board spokesperson tells TVO.org via email: “We did not specifically reach out to any groups. As indicated in our Admin Procedure [2012 guidelines for naming and renaming schools], we accept online suggestions from all students, families, and stakeholders in the community. Everyone is welcome to make suggestions.” The board received 1,200 naming suggestions that it put before a committee, including a parent, the school principal, the superintendent, and two trustees. Three names were shortlisted for consideration by the other trustees, who picked Makwendam, which means “to remember” in Anishinaabemowin.

Agenda segment, June 18, 2021: Seeking justice for St. Anne's survivors

According to Galindo, the Hamilton school’s current process would see trustees have the final say — but that’s something he thinks the board should at least consider changing: “Currently, that's what the structure would be. But that's something I think is one of the criticisms and then learning opportunities that we as trustees trying to work with Indigenous communities have to grapple with when we're even asking them to conform to what our colonial governance practice is.”  

Understanding how such governance and community engagement can be at odds is crucial, says Brea Scott, a humanities student at Ryerson University and another organizer with Wreckonciliation. “You cannot pursue Truth and Reconciliation through a lens of managerialism and capitalism. You have to go through it by changing processes,” says Scott, who suggests that Western institutions tend to consolidate power at the top and limit bottom-up engagement (the top being presidents, CEOs, or boards, for instance, and the bottom including workers, students, and communities).  

Jeremie Caribou, a public-administration and governance student who is half nehithew (Cree) and half Mohawk, agrees it’s important to consult from the bottom up. “The community are the experts,” says Caribou, who also works as Ryerson University Library’s Indigenous-initiatives liaison lead. “I think it's important to have some Indigenous perspective into it, because we are on Indigenous lands.” Names, he says, are reminders of “where one is, how they got there, and where they’re going,” and the current name is “putting [racism and genocide] on a pedestal and normalizing anti-Indigenous racism … It’s like we don’t matter.”

Originally from Pukatawagan, in northern Manitoba, Caribou was raised by residential-school survivors. But until he started going to Ryerson University, he says, he didn’t know about its namesake’s role in the system. Now, he’s happy the name is changing: “It’s not like [Indigenous people are] asking for a handout, or anything, or for society to feel sorry for us, or for you to feel bad. We’re just speaking truth.”

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